Monday, June 29, 2009

Jason goes to the Broncho Billy Silent Film Festival at the Niles Film Museum

So last weekend my favorite local silent film theater did a whole weekend of silent era indies. I caught about half of it. Wish I had caught all, but I was occupied all day Saturday and Sunday night. Sometimes it's hard being so popular.

Anyway, Friday night kicked off with a program "From Lasky to Paramount". It started with a brief talk on the history of the independent studios (most notably Lasky and Famous Players) that became Paramount. Paramount started as a distribution company affiliated with the independent studios including Lasky Feature Play Company and Adolph Zukor's Famous Players Film Company (the Edison patent companies had the major distributors and basically locked the independents out, if they couldn't put them out of business by enforcing patents). Later the studios merged to produce films under the Famous Players-Lasky Corporation, with Paramount still the distribution company. Eventually the name became Paramount-Famous Lasky Corporation and finally just Paramount Pictures, Inc. The films we watched were:

A TRIP THROUGH THE PARAMOUNT STUDIO (1927): A nearly decayed print of a promotional film celebrating the West Coast Movie...something or other. Seemed like some big to-do. At least Paramount had all its stars out, from Clara Bow to W. C. Fields.

WHEN CLUBS WERE TRUMPS (1916): Hubby wants to play cards with his pals, but wifey won't let him. So the boys send over a fake cop to "arrest" him and drag him away. Too bad there's also a madman on the loose, and a real cop chasing him. I predict lots of mistaken identity antics. I was right!

THE BUTCHER BOY (1917): Roscoe "Fatty" Arbuckle as a butcher who gets into a very messy fight for the hand of his love. Includes Buster Keaton's first appearance on film.

And the feature, THE ENEMY SEX 1924): Betty Compson (also in WHEN CLUBS WERE TRUMPS) is an actress who is fortunate to be invited to Mr. Albert Edward Sassoon's big party, the apex of the social scene. Of course, every man is smitten with her. But she's a good girl--she expects men to slip up once, but only once! Still, she inspires a judge to leave his wife, a high society drunk to...get really drunk. And try to clean up. And fail. And eventually succeed, but he still can't give up driving really fast. Oh yeah, there's a drunk driving/speeding scene that you could not get away with nowadays. My, times have changed.

Speaking of drunk. I missed Saturday because I was engaging in a pub crawl up the peninsula, from Palo Alto to San Mateo. But I used public transit. I ringed the bay, and only got thrown out of one bar (for being sleepy, not rowdy. WTF?).

Apparently if I had stayed at the festival on Saturday I would've seen a modern silent "newsreel" of Diana Carey's (aka Baby Peggy's) 90th birthday. The important thing about that--I'm in it. Yeah, I'm a silent film extra STAR!

Anyway, I was back at the festival for a couple of shows on Sunday, starting with a tribute to the 100th anniversary of the founding of Thanhouser Company. Ned Thanhouser, the founder's grandfather (and an archivist saving, restoring, and re-releasing the company's lost films) was there to give a little history of the studio. In a nutshell, Edwin Thanhouser was a stage actor who got into film production, and the Thanhouser Company was the first motion picture company in America to be founded by someone with stage experience (others were technical people or distributors first). As a result, they were widely regarded as making the best films of the era. However, they were very slow to adapt to the advent of feature films, continuing to make shorts almost exclusively. Eventually they did switch and make 100% features, but it was too late.

The films that were screened:

THE EVIDENCE OF THE FILM (1913): A dastardly crook. A framed delivery boy. An exonerating film (recently added to the National Film Registry as a "culturally significant" film for it's depiction of women working in the film lab). A glaring technical error (magic film that can switch from behind to in front of the scene). High melodrama, definitely shows the stage roots of Thanhouser.

JUST A SHABBY DOLL (1913): A love story and a class story. A father tells a story to his daughter about the significance of an old doll. How he was a poor boy who loved a rich girl. How he saved every penny to give her a present. How he left to find his fortune, found it (in the easiest gold strike ever), returned, and found now he's the rich one and she's the poor one. And that's how he found his love again. Aaaawwww.

THE WOMAN IN WHITE (1917) (aka THE UNFORTUNATE MARRIAGE): Thanhouser star Florence La Badie (who also appeared in THE EVIDENCE OF THE FILM) stars in a dual role, as both Ann Catherick, an escaped mental patient (in white) and Laura Fairlie a reasonably wealthy heiress. She's forced against her will to marry Sir Percival Glyde, although the mental patient slips her a note warning her that he's not the man he appears to be. Meanwhile her true love (Walter, her art teacher) is sent off on a comission to Central America. Of course, Percival has a plan to steal her fortune, but her sister Marian, along with Walter (who has returned with a Brazilian secret service agent for some reason) help her foil the plan and also reveal the crimes he comitted against poor, slow Ann Catherick. It's a classic story (based on a popular novel, and in 1917 this was already the third film adaptation), and one chock full of odd coincidences. I haven't read the novel so I don't know if the coincidences are more believable there.

Then we had a program of films made (at least in part) in the Bay Area. David Kiehn (who is the projectionist at the theater and a historian who wrote a book on the history of the Essanay studio in Niles) gave a nice talk about early bay area film industry.

A TRIP DOWN MARKET STREET (1906): Just days before the earthquake. A view from a trolley as it makes its way down Market Street to the Ferry Building. Not much really happens, other than cars, people, and horse-draw carriages weaving back and forth in front of the camera. Including one guy in a bowler hat who keeps showing up. Even 100 years ago, people were jumping in front of cameras.

DREAM PICTURE (1925): A contest by the Oakland Tribune had people write in with their strange dreams for a chance at a cash prize and having their dream turned into a movie. Mabel Nicholson had a strange dream where she went on a picnic to Marin with her husband and baby. But in San Francisco, they realize the baby basket is empty so they take the ferry back to Oakland (assuming he's still in the car). He's not just in the car, he's driving away.

POP TUTTLE, DETECKATIVE (1922): On in a series of Pop Tuttle comedies (this is the only one I've seen). Pop Tuttle is an eccentric, foolish old man, and in this one he sends away for a detective kit. Along with a very large and very strong nice young lady Tillie Olson (Wilna Hervey, and I was unclear if she was supposed to be his daughter, girlfriend, or just a friend). Anyway, his detective kit is put to good order catching a crook who happens to be masquerading as a detective himself. Of course, it's the giant Tillie who does all the crook-catching.

And finally, the show ended with the feature CALL OF THE KLONDIKE (1926): Dick Norton (Gaston Glass) is a young mining engineer, working in the desert with an old miner, whose daughter Violet (Dorothy Dwan) is Norton's true love. The old miner talks of the good ol' days in the Klondike, so when a new strike is found, Norton rushes up there. He becomes established as a capable and honest mining engineer, which of course rubs the devious Mortimer Pearson (Earl Metcalfe) the wrong way. Well, Violet and her father move up to the Klondike, too (too quickly to get word to Norton, so it's a pleasant surprise). Unfortunately, she also catches the eye of Pearson, who steps in to "help" (blackmail) when her father falls ill. Pearson makes a play for both Violet and Norton's claim, in the process framing Norton for the murder of his mining partner. Fortunately, he is rescued by Lightning Girl, his trusty dog. Doggy heroes are the best!

And that was all I saw. I had other plans for dinner so I didn't stay for the final show (IMP to Universal).

If you want more silent film, come to the Niles Film Museum every Saturday night. Except for July 11th. Rumor has it there are some silent films playing at the Castro that weekend, instead.

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